When Terry Smith reviewed instances of children being pepper sprayed in state juvenile detention centers about a year ago, he didn’t see a single occasion when its use was needed.
Smith, the Oklahoma Juvenile Affairs (OJA) deputy director for resident placement and support, reviewed videos to evaluate juvenile facility staff practices.
“When I looked at the incidents where they did use it, number one, I didn’t see it as being really necessary in any of the situations,” Smith said. “It wasn’t a riot situation. It was one kid, usually, or a couple of kids.”
Since 2012, staff members have used pepper spray on more than 50 occasions, according to agency records. In some instances, more than one child was sprayed.
[perfectpullquote align=”left” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]“I should be honest and say that I was infuriated.” –Stephen Grissom, an OJA board member and psychologist[/perfectpullquote]
About a year ago, OJA launched a two-year plan to reduce and eventually eliminate the use of pepper spray in two state-run facilities.
If the agency stays on schedule, pepper spray won’t be completely phased out until 2018. However, Smith is hoping to expedite the process to get rid of it sooner.
Across the U.S., the use of pepper spray in juvenile detention centers is rare. But in Oklahoma, it’s still used in two facilities: the Central Oklahoma Juvenile Center and Southwest Oklahoma Juvenile Center.
Almost 90 percent of juvenile correctional centers nationwide don’t allow staff to carry the spray.
“So for us, it’s about how do we do a better job of providing treatment for our kids,” Smith said. “Our local staff are on board with it. We want to make sure that we to phase it out and not have it as a tool, not have it on our campus at all.”
Phasing pepper spray out
Agency records show in less than five years, staff have used pepper spray in 52 incidents on 62 children.
So far in 2017, the spray has been used only once. From 2014 to 2016, there was a 73.3 percent decrease in the number of incidents that pepper spray was used in state juvenile detention facilities.
Stephen Grissom, an OJA board member and psychologist, said he was angered by several different cases while investigating incidents involving the use of spray.
“I should be honest and say that I was infuriated,” he said.
In a February meeting, OJA board member Tony Caldwell said he has seen videos of kids being “hosed down” with pepper spray.
In one incident, a staff member emptied an entire can on a child, Grissom said. That employee was fired.
Initially, the plan was to be rid of pepper spray within two years. After the first six months, only a supervisor was allowed to carry it.
Now one year into the plan, the spray is kept in a lockbox at a central location in units. The final phase of the transition would occur in March 2018, when OJA would eliminate it unless board members decide otherwise.
The OJA board is expected to discuss the idea of making that happen sooner and vote on the issue next week.
Smith is hoping to entirely eliminate the spray from facilities and instead increase staff training and equip them with the skills to de-escalate situations and improve and maintain facilities’ safety and security.
During the agency’s February board meeting, other members agreed.
However, Caldwell noted some facility staff is divided on the issue and staff needed to be mindful of their safety during the final steps of the transition.
Grissom, who is assisting with staff training, said in an interview that instead of treating juvenile facilities with a correctional mindset, the agency has been shifting to a social service, focusing on the rehabilitation process.
“I’d rather physically wrap a kid up then I would pepper spray him in terms of amount of damage to things like trust. At least when I wrap him up, I’m holding him,” Grissom said.
“And he might not like it, and it may trigger some things in him, but that fundamental human need for contact and nurturance and care is in fact getting addressed.”
When staff have pepper spray, they are less likely to use alternative ways to work with children through their problems, Grissom said. Or when staff become irritated when a youth is misbehaving, they won’t have the option of using the spray as a punishment, he said.
Smith said there’s the belief if kids in the facilities are hurting people or causing problems, then they deserve to be pepper sprayed.
“It’s not our job to punish kids. When a kid is in a placement, that’s punishment,” Smith said. “That’s deprivation of liberty. That’s the punishment part.
“While we’ve got that kid in that punishment, for the long-term benefit of the kid and society, we need to help in more different ways to do things. And doing things that hurt them, scare them and push them away are not helpful.”
Many experts agree pepper spray is especially harmful in a juvenile-detention environment because it damages staff-child relationships.
Mark Soler, executive director of the Center for Children’s Law and Policy in Washington D.C., has helped shape national standards for juvenile detention centers, including a ban on the use of pepper spray.
“It’s not a common practice at all,” Soler said. “There are very few states where pepper spray is used (in juvenile facilities).”
Soler said the use of the spray is counterproductive. It increases youths’ anger and resentment toward staff, he said.
“It is a really inhumane way of treating another human being,” Soler said. “In juvenile facilities we want staff and the young people to have a relationship of trust where the staff are trying to help the young people overcome their difficulties and grow into productive members of the community.”
OJA started using pepper spray in 2011 following an assault and two riot-like incidents at the Central Oklahoma Juvenile Center in Tecumseh.
The riots occurred after the L.E. Rader Center, the state’s only maximum security juvenile center, closed. Those residents were transferred to the Central Oklahoma Juvenile Center and the Southwest Oklahoma Juvenile Center.
Both of the facilities house only male youth from the ages 14 to 19. Oklahoma Juvenile Center for Girls, the other OJA facility, does not use pepper spray nor is it kept on the premises, Smith said.
Grissom said there wouldn’t be progress if the agency took pepper spray away from staff and didn’t offer alternative tools.
“Part of that plan was we need to give people training and kind of refocus the attention on prevention and de-escalation and problem solving and having ways to do things differently so that you really don’t need to reach for the (pepper spray),” he said.
Ideally, the end result would increase safety for staff and children, as well as rehabilitate youth.
“The question is, do we give this kid a better chance of making it because he’s been with us? …I’ve never believed that (pepper) spray gave you the chance of getting that kid in better shape,” Grissom said.